The Sunshine Boys

Movie review by
Renee Schonfeld, Common Sense Media
The Sunshine Boys Movie Poster Image
Aging comics sparkle, swear, and spar in Neil Simon farce.
  • PG
  • 1975
  • 111 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Patience and empathy are important elements in preserving long-term friendships. Even in very difficult relationships, common bonds can overcome small grievances.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Much of the movie's humor comes from stereotypical characteristics of aging (deafness, memory loss), but it's treated as endearing and is delivered with the intent of exacting as much laughter as possible. Outrageous behavior is the central character's stock in trade; cantankerous, self-absorbed, and stubborn, he becomes slightly more understanding over the course of the film. Younger family members are portrayed as considerate, loyal, and forgiving of their older relatives. There is some ethnic diversity.


The incorrigible senior at the heart of this movie hits his adult nephew once and threatens him with a knife. He suffers a heart attack and falls down a few stairs. No injuries or deaths.


A very funny vaudeville sketch about a doctor and his buxom nurse is included. The skit contains comic ogling, innuendo, and a healthy supply of "large breast" jokes. The nurse wears a very low-cut uniform and wiggles her derriere as she enters and exits. 


Frequent mild-to-moderate cursing: "s--t," "damn," "bastard," "Jesus," "for Christ's sake," "hell," "son-of-a-bitch." Insults are heard frequently as well: "idiot," "senile," "lunatic," "putz," "shut up," "crazy bedbug." One elderly character uses ethnic slurs in a few instances: "Kraut," "the Spanish kid" (referring to an adult), and "Japs."


Numerous products are either seen or mentioned: L'eggs, Alka-Seltzer, Variety, ABC, Streit's Matzos, Campbell's Soup, Coca-Cola, Sardi's, Schick, Chrysler, Colt 45. Much of the action takes place in New York City's landmark Hotel Ansonia (now a condominium complex). 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Smoking is referred to as "not allowed." A character chews on a cigar.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Sunshine Boys is another "buddy" (or "anti-buddy") comedy from writer Neil Simon. Two elderly ex-vaudevillians trade jokes and insults and reflect upon their 43-year partnership as entertainers, not all of it happy. There is a great deal of physical humor, including lengthy scenes in which two true comic geniuses (Walter Matthau and George Burns, who won a Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance) silently engage in hilarious one-upmanship. One sequence is a replay of a farcical vaudeville sketch in which a doctor leers at a buxom nurse while trying to seduce her. Cursing ("bastard," "s--t," "hell") and insults ("lunatic," "putz," "idiot") are heard throughout. Although often said in anger, the language is meant to be ludicrously out of line and funny. In one briefly suspenseful scene, one of the leads has an on-camera heart attack and trips down some stairs but recovers. Tweens and teens who aren't really old enough to pick up on the references to vaudeville, early television, and the world of agents and auditions will still see the laugh-out-loud humor in the old boys' relationship and the frequent clowning. 

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What's the story?

As THE SUNSHINE BOYS opens, 73-year-old vaudeville comic Willy Clark (Walter Matthau) will never retire. Though his agent-nephew, Ben (Richard Benjamin), is giving it his all, Willy self-destructs at every audition. It isn't that he's untalented; he's simply a royal pain. In a moment of great exuberance and hope, however, Ben shows up at the cluttered, memorabilia-filled hotel in which Willy makes his home with an unbelievable offer: A television network is doing a special about the history of comedy, and the producers are hoping that Willy and his old partner, Al Lewis (George Burns), will be part of it. It's a big payday and a prestigious event; "Lewis & Clark" will get the recognition they deserve for their nearly half century together. But the two men haven't spoken in 11 years, not since Al Lewis unceremoniously retired, leaving Willy in a comedy partnership of one. Ben's efforts to get the two men together for this show of a lifetime take them all on a precarious journey -- one in which bitterness and hostility, along with the natural aging process, threaten to ruin even their best memories.

Is it any good?

Great banter from the always witty and humane Neil Simon, along with precision timing and spectacular physical comedy, make this movie as funny today as it was when it was released in 1975. Comic “schtick" reigns supreme in this story -- there's an ethnic sensibility (Jewish) that both men obviously relish. George Burns was 88 years old when he won the Oscar for his supporting role, and Matthau's comic genius is turned up all the way from beginning to end. It's an uncommon joy to watch them work together. The featured players, the director, and, of course, the writer never let them down. Despite some of the grown-up themes (retirement, losing one's memory, a heart attack, dealing with aging parents), and frequent swearing, Willy Clark's incorrigible behavior, nephew Ben's beleaguered doggedness, and Al Lewis's quiet but incisive humor should provide tweens and teens with plenty of laughs.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the physical humor in this film. How is the silent comedy dependent upon knowing who the men are and what their relationship is? 

  • Even though Willy Clark could be very obnoxious and overbearing, did you find yourself rooting for him, hoping that he would come to his senses? What skills did the actor (Walter Matthau) use to make Willy likable and vulnerable?  

  • Did the early film footage of old-time vaudeville at the opening of the movie interest you? Find out more about vaudeville, which was one of the earliest forms of widely seen entertainment in the U.S. See if you can find similarities between the vaudeville of the past and the television and YouTube videos of today.

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